Common Ideas in Fences and Death of a Salesman

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“Fences” is American playwright August Wilson wrote in 1985, in Wilson’s ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle” it was the sixth-part. Like all August Wilson’s play about Pittsburgh, Fences explores the growing experience of African Americans and explores race relations and dysfunctional family.

In “Fence”, August Wilson was focus attention in Troy, a fifty-three years old household. Troy used to be a baseball star, but he was imprisoned for an accidental robbery and murder. At that time, the American Major League Baseball apartheid policy was not completely abolished, blacks had few chances to appear, and Troy was old after he was released from prison. So, his baseball life ended, and he became a sanitation worker in Pittsburgh. His family life is not very smooth, he lives with his wife Rose, his son Cory, and his younger brother Gabriel. Cory tells Troy and Ross about the opportunity to get a college football scholarship. Troy told Cory that he would not let afraid of racial discrimination stop his son play football, as Troy thought he had experienced in his career in the national league. However, Troy told Cory's coach that his son is no longer playing football. When Corey discovered this, he and Troy fell into a battle, causing Troy to kick Cory out of his home. Later it is revealed that Cory enlisted in the military after this event. Seven years later, Troy has pathed away, Cory comes home for a visit from the military, Due to long-term resentment, he initially refused to attend his father's funeral, but his mother was convinced that he would pay his respects to his father. The man, though indifferent, often performed poorly, but loved his son.

August Wilson was one of the most powerful African American voices in the 1980s and 1990s. As a playwright, Wilson tells interesting and enduring stories. His “Pittsburgh Cycle” collection ten plays addressing aspect of African American life. This is a reason makes him undoubtedly the most ambitious and respected black dramatist of twentieth century. Wilson’s drama won several New York Drama Critic Award for Best Plays, and two Pulitzer Prize for Drama, one for “The Piano Lesson” and another for “Fences”.

Reading Fences, one can see the resemblance to another classic twentieth century American drama “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller in exploration of domestic dynamics.

Arthur Miller is considered to be one of the three pillars of American drama. “Death of a Salesman” described a salesman William 'Willy' Loman has more than thirty years of sales experience, he believes in the fake business culture of the United States, blindly estimate his abilities, fantasizes about has gained fame and unrealistic prospects through merchandising, he is often in a state of bragging, boasting, and lie, until he is dying to think that he will be able to achieve fame, but he is ignorant of the cause of his own destruction.

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Like Ladrica Menson-Furr said in “August Wilson’s Fences (2008)”, “Fences could be staged alongside its twin, Death of a Salesman.” (August Wilson’s Fences (2008) Ladrica Menson-Furr ,87). Many of the constructs in the article are very similar, such as: the similarity between father and son conflict, the reconciled death ending, and described the dysfunctional family.

Both “Fences” and “Death of a salesman” shows the conflict between father a son. In salesman, Willy’s anguish mainly comes from the universal sorrow of his father’s failure. While the father-son tension between Willy and his older son Biff is the most distinct conflicting force throughout the play, their involvement into the father-son dilemma could trace back to that between Willy and his own absent and thus not well-delineated father, “All I remember is a man with a big beard, and I was in Mamma’s lap, sitting around a fire, and some kind of high music.”( Death of a salesman” Miller, 34). The entanglement between Wily and his son Biff is connected with Willy’s “dream”. As Linda, the wife and mother, explains that “it’s when (Biff) come home (Willy)’s always the worst” (Salesman 54), Willy’s vision in this period is more like a nostalgic retrospect, recalling the euphoric time with the former athletic young Biff and his own promising salesman career. Biff’s customary theft which leads to the turning point of Willy’s reverie as well as the “revealing moment” of the play—years ago he was caught by Biff for a one-night-stand with his customer at a motel on a business trip. It belittles Willy’s dignity as a competent son and responsible father. He fails either to realize or to rewrite his father’s legacy as a salesman, whereas his reckless venturing spirit evokes Biff’s constant challenge and eventually “overthrown”, Willy commits suicide to amend his love for Biff. Similar as “Fences”, Troy and his younger son Cory conflict deteriorates in three steps which again in Troy’s story is built into the form of the three disputes in baseball competition. Grudging over his own frustrated baseball life, Troy provokes Cory to take the first dispute when Troy dictatorially declines the football recruiter’s offer to grant Cory’s football pursuit which is hoped to gain him scholarship for college admission. Then Cory dispute the second time as Troy becomes physically fierce trying to explain himself to Rose about his extramarital affair. Till then Troy’s paternal authority is already on the verge of collapse after twice dispute. And lastly, Cory directly articulates his challenge against Troy, saying that “you don’t count around here no more” (Fences, 85) which lead to their last violent dispute with Cory ending up leaving the house just like the way Tory left his father.

“Fences” and “Death of a Salesman” both have the reconciled death ending. For the salesman and Fences, the protagonist's death outcome can be considered a concept that embraces the dramatic whole. Specifically, the title of the death of the salesman has pointed to the narrative direction of the show. Due to the tension between the father and the son, the dramatic conflict of the salesman reached a solution, and Willie committed suicide in the realization of Biff's love. The crisis between father and son in Fences has always depended on the life of Troy. In Salesman, this is further indicated in its subtitle: “Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem”, According “Arthur Miller: A Critical Study” by Christopher Bigsby “it is crucial as a moment when the contradictions are stilled, the false hopes laid aside, and we no longer see the world through the eyes of a man who never knew who he was, or what he might be, apart from the flickering images projected by a society at risk of subsuming the spiritual in the material.”(121). As for Fences, the preface poem by Wilson also suggests, the “sins” of Troy is banished with forgiveness at his death. Its final scene erases Troy’s dominant personal voice to show an extended and reunited family at Troy’s funeral which helps to open the “gates of Heaven” for Troy in return (Fences 101).

The representation of dysfunctional family, as illustrated in both Miller’s Salesman and Wilson’s Fences, has been a constant theme in the American modern theatre. In “The Death of a Salesman”, Willy Loman as the title hero is a low-man as what his name implies. Willy is universally real and fully human which also makes him vulnerable. Concerning this, his nearly crazy intention to pursue his displaced dream of becoming a “well-liked” salesman and a loving father makes him a hero. In his sixties, Willy still runs the basic errands as a salesman. Shuttling between New York and Boston every week, Willy struggles for money barely enough to support the whole family and to pay off the loan for their house after his life-long work. To put an end to his thirty-six-year’s work, the company for which Willy “opens up un-heard-of territories to their trademark” takes away his salary (Salesman 56). Being a salesman that feeds on “a smile and a Shoeshine”, old Willy is marginalized in the commercial world in America just like their “small, fragile-seeming home” which is squeezed in by “a solid vault of apartment houses” (Salesman. 11). And the frustration in his salesman career ferments the familial conflicts which drives him to death. However, exhausted and defeated as Willy is, his heroism exactly consists in his tragic yet necessary struggle. On the one hand, Willie embodies the individual's doubts about the society's sluggishness. On the other hand, although Willie is to some extent a victim of his own wishes and accompanying behavior, his desires and guilt are inseparable. Tory Maxson, a garbage man in Fences represents the inferior. His African American identity has put him in constant displacement: Tory left home at fourteen only to find no place to live and no way to make a living but to steal and then rob himself into The prison. After fifteen years of imprisonment, Troy lost his wife and the chance to father his first child Lyons; while in prison he developed an exquisite craftsmanship on baseball, which still turned out to be no help to improve his marginalized situation, and finally To play the bread-winner who supports a whole family with his weekly seventy-six dollars and forty-two cents, Troy has to resort to the compensation money for his younger brother Gabriel, who became mentally retarded from And his personal displacement, to a great extent, induces his shattered familial relationship: due to his illegitimate daughter, he is estranged from his wife and becomes a 'womanless husband', while his son Cory is also driven away by his domestic coercion which makes him a bereft father at the same time.

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and August Wilson’s “Fences”, both of which, though composed out of different temporal condition by separate writer, exhibit crucial similarities in their dramatic tone and structure evolving around dysfunctional families.

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Common Ideas in Fences and Death of a Salesman. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 18, 2024, from
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